A Flock of Humans? How Physics Models of Nature can offer Insights into Societal Behaviours


Dr Vladimir Lobaskin - A flock of humans? How physics models of nature can offer insights into societal behavioursHave you ever watched as a flock of birds flies overhead? The individuals seem to self-organise as they collectively soar, swoop and suddenly change direction. 

Similarly, groups of fish and insects seem to work as a dynamic whole. Could there be parallels with how humans think as a collective? 

Dr Vladimir Lobaskin from UCD School of Physics has been looking at the parallels between how individual animals or particles interact in nature, and how opinions and behaviours spread through human societies.

Flocks of animals in nature form fascinating structures, explains Dr Lobaskin, who describes each individual’s direction of motion as a ‘vector’ for the mathematical model. “We were inspired by similarity of flocking to ferromagnetism - the animal behaviour resembles the way the elementary atomic magnets interact with their neighbours to align the vectors and ‘negotiate’ the common orientation in space.”

Could these local interactions influence the entire crowd? By modelling such interactions, Dr Lobaskin and colleagues have found that these neighbourly alignments may provide enough impetus for the overall group to self-organise - even without any central co-ordination or specific common purpose. 

“We see that if you have a sufficiently large pool of agents and the agents only talk to their neighbours, this is sufficient to cause global ordering independently of the nature of the interactions or the nature of the motion,” he explains. 

Flocks can spontaneously scatter into distinct subgroups, so Dr Lobaskin and colleagues looked at how their physics models of this fragmentation in nature could apply to human opinions in society. 

“If you think of the model as being of human opinions, we can envision a situation when only like-minded opinions interact,” he explains. “And when the society is made of such narrow-minded individuals who are only prepared to listen to people from their circle, we see that it spontaneously splits into opposing groups.”

Dr Lobaskin likens this polarisation to divisive splits seen in politics and wars, where groups stop listening to one another and the divisions become more deeply entrenched. And, just as in nature, the energy supply is critical. “If you show people graphic images and cause them to feel anger, anxiety and fear, that supply of emotional energy may become over-critical and you see this self-organisation into distinct groups,” he says.

The physical model also hints at what is needed to avoid such polarisation in societies: open-mindedness, a diversity of information and points of view and a lack of social pressure to conform with one group or another are key, he notes. 

Dr Lobaskin and colleagues are starting to collaborate with researchers beyond physics to see how the modelling approach could inform our understanding of collective behaviour in human societies. “These effects have been described in sociology for many years,” he says. “And now we are looking at it with physics, we see that the phenomena are more general in nature than we might have thought.”

Dr Vladimir Lobaskin from the UCD School of Physics was interviewed by freelance journalist Dr Claire O'Connell.